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Steps towards racial justice

RSS By: MNYS Anti-Racism Task Force

Our Anti-Racism Task Force members will be taking turns in writing posts that shed light on issues surrounding racial justice work in our church and society. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors.

Privilege in the land of Sojourner Truth’s slavery

Apr 29, 2016

by Rev. James Rowe


Early Saturday mornings, before most people are awake, I run along streets that at times seem to be haunted by ghosts, especially the ghosts of my ancestors and of the great African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth. Ms. Truth was born into slavery not too far from Kingston, NY where I serve Redeemer Lutheran Church. As I run through Port Ewen, just south of Kingston, I pass a 5-foot-6 bronze statue of Sojourner Truth, immortalized as the young Isabella Baumfree, the name she held as a slave. She is carrying two heavy jugs, one of liquor and one of molasses, back from the Rondout Creek area where she would have purchased them for her owner who ran the local Jug Tavern. The statue is beautiful, but it is not pretty. Her clothing is a rag of a dress, her feet bare, her back showing the scars of beatings, and in the predawn light I can almost see the determination in her eyes set toward freedom.


Bust_of_Sojourner_TruthAs my long run turns back north toward home, I snake my way through the streets of Kingston and its historical buildings. I pause at the Ulster County Courthouse in Uptown Kingston, where in 1828 she successfully sued and won her son Peter’s freedom after he was illegally sold to an owner in Alabama. There is a small plaque commemorating this historic event with the adult face of Ms. Truth on it. As I run in the predawn light, visit parishioners, walk the streets of Kingston, drink tea in coffee shops, and even participate in a public procession during an ecumenical Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, I am oddly aware of something that I was not aware of before I moved out east in 2007.


It was not until I moved out east after graduating from Wartburg Theological Seminary (Dubuque, IA) that I realized how important the history of the communities I have served are to me. While serving St. Mark Lutheran Church in Norwich, CT from 2007-2010 my father and sister back home in Minnesota started genealogy work and learned that our ancestors had lived in the communities that I have served (Norwich, CT and Kingston, NY). In Norwich, I lived down the street from the burial site of Uncas Sachem of the Mohegan people. A few miles away were the grave sites of the first white settlers of Norwich, one of whom was an ancestor of mine and a key person in the purchase of the land from Uncas. When I moved to Kingston, NY my father and I drove down the street where the Ulster County Courthouse and Old Dutch Church sit on opposite sides, and he told me that some of my ancestors had been married in that church. My ancestors walked to church on the same street that Ms. Truth walked as a slave and later would walk to win her son’s freedom.


The longer I have lived out east the more I have realized that my life both past and present has been informed by the events that have shaped the communities in which I live and serve. In other words, I am indebted to these communities and its peoples for my very life. Whether I acknowledge it or not, my life and my ministry is intimately intertwined with the long history of these places and their people. And as my predawn runs and ministry take me along these historic and ancestral streets alive with ghosts, I cannot help but wonder occasionally how my life would have turned out if my ancestors had been Mohegan instead of white settlers or slaves instead of free.


I say occasionally because as a white, male, cisgender person I have the privilege to be able to not think about such things because who I am as considered the norm for our society. And not thinking or speaking about these things is the preferred societal, "normal" thing to do. When I talk about my white privilege in my predominately white privileged world, I get pushback from others. As I try to make sense of who I am, I have noticed that my whiteness and privilege have hidden from me my own culture, my own ancestry, my own familial history, both good and bad, and my desire to make sense of it all is not what white people are supposed to do. (We won’t get into my family’s questionable connection to Frank James, the older brother of Jesse James, Confederate soldier, guerrilla, outlaw, bank robber, and member of the infamous James-Younger Gang. My first name is James, of course.)


As a member of the Anti-Racism Task Force, I am learning that I need to make sense of my culture, ancestry, familial history, and privilege. I am learning that I need to weather the pushback and discomfort it causes in myself and others so that I may play a part in creating the "Beloved Community" that Dr. King spoke so passionately about. I do this not because I am perfect, but precisely because I am an imperfect person and pastor whose imperfections have been covered over by my whiteness. And as I listen to the stories that my colleagues, friends, and parishioners of color share with me about their experiences as under privileged people in this country, I realize that if I do nothing, if I keep running down those streets without addressing the haunting ghosts both past and present, then I am giving in to the indifference that is one privilege of my whiteness.


Dr._Martin_Luther_King_-_1957As I have worked with the Anti-Racism Task Force I have realized that there is great wisdom in the words of Martin Luther’s "Lectures on Galatians" that helped me understand my calling as a pastor and as a child of God when I was discerning a call to pastoral ministry in 2003. Brother Martin writes, "if there is anything in us, it is not our own; it is a gift of God. But if it is a gift of God, then it is entirely a debt one owes to love, that is, to the law of Christ. And if it is a debt owed to love, then I must serve others with it, not myself. Thus my learning is not my own; it belongs to the unlearned and is the debt I own them… My wisdom belongs to the foolish, my power to the oppressed. Thus my wealth belongs to the poor, my righteousness to the sinners." And, I would add, my privilege belongs to the under privileged. I have seen in the eyes of the people on the task force the same determination I see in the eyes of the young Ms. Truth in the predawn light: We are better than our current condition, we will work to make this church and our communities better for all, and one day we will all be free of this harmful privilege.



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